Case Method Instruction in the Business Writing Classroom

By Dorn, Elizabeth M. | Business Communication Quarterly, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Case Method Instruction in the Business Writing Classroom


Dorn, Elizabeth M., Business Communication Quarterly


Bridging the gap between classroom and workplace has long been the immediate challenge for business writing instructors. One solution that has been identified is the case method, which has been popular at Harvard for teaching the complexities of law and, more recently, business administration and communications. Instructors who use this approach provide students with a case - a story or scenario of a real business situation - that describes a problem situation and places the student in a position to participate in addressing it or resolving it either orally or in writing. Upon reading a case the student is provided with a directive that is usually something like this: Assume you are Person X (the case's protagonist or an assistant to the protagonist). Draft a memo (or letter or fax) to Person Y (person of authority you need to persuade) responding to Issue Z (the problem). Most often the problem situation is at a crisis point and/or the protagonist has a lot to lose if the problem isn't resolved favorably.

Data collected from survey and interview research I conducted with 25 employees who feel writing is important to effectively performing their job function suggests that our current case-based instruction focuses too much on the exceptional rhetorical situation - on the situation that requires students to resolve business problems of great import in writing. Because research shows that workplace writers typically face less extraordinary, more mundane rhetorical situations, it is important to reconsider how we are using cases to teach writing since we may be giving students instruction they will rarely use.

According to my analysis of cases documented in communications literature from 1990 to the present, the rhetorical situations employees typically experience as writers are missing from the case plots. Problem situations writers face are often not at a crisis point; the politics are pretty straightforward; and, moreover, writing is typically not a key tool used to address a problem situation. Rather, writing is used at the end of the problem solving process to document results or outcomes of a situation for future reference if it becomes necessary.

Indeed, the rhetorical situations writers face require more information management skills than persuasion prowess. Since the cases published in the March 1998 Special Issue of Business Communication Quarterly are recent, I'll contrast its cases and my research to demonstrate why instructors should, at the very least, offer students case-based instruction that balances informative and persuasive writing requirements so they are better prepared to write on the job.

A Review of BCQ Cases

The 1990s represent a decline in research on case method pedagogy in business and technical writing classrooms. Never a popular field of study, most scholarship that does exist advocates the case method as an effective way to familiarize students with the principles of business communications and complexities of writing in the workplace. Generally accepted case theory evolved from 1) seminal work done in conjunction with or as a result of Harvard University's case method project, 2) scholarship produced in the fields of technical writing and later in the growing area of business communications, and to some extent, 3) composition research. The most recent research published on case method, long in coming and much needed, was the result of the Casebook Project sponsored by the Association for Business Communication. Cases were submitted to the Association as a result of an international call for cases, and a careful case selection process was used to select those that best met governing criteria. The March 1998 Special Issue of Business Communications Quarterly presents these cases for use in business/management communications classrooms.

That this well-researched and rigorously tested set of cases is a significant contribution to the field of business/management communication is undeniable. …

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